Podcast 🎧 & blog: 20 years of technological change and transformation

12.04.2023 | Federico Plantera

A review of technological change in the past 20 years, applications and narratives, sweet birthday wishes. We have it all in this week’s episode of the Digital Government Podcast, where we head to distinguished technology experts of e-Governance Academy (eGA) for another expert chat dedicated to eGA’s 20 years anniversary.

Programme Director Heiko Vainsalu meets Mark Erlich, Senior Expert on eID. From popularizing tech talk in government and society, to novelties and black boxes to unpack, the two experts take us through two decades of digital transformation. To see what’s changed in digital development worldwide and, always clearly put, what’s not. Coming up next?

20 years of technological change and transformation

For how surprising it may seem to the least aware, technologists as well have a life beyond development projects and digital solutions. “20 years ago I was completing my university studies, I wasn’t that aware of e-governance. To me, it meant public services for taxes and banking, simply because those were my two point of contacts with the topic back then,” Erlich admits.

And while we heard from eGA cyber and e-democracy experts in previous episodes what these two decades of change entailed, what about the technology domain?

“The core is pretty much the same as 20 years ago. What happened is a crucial shift from niche to popularity. From niche products used just in some specific business areas, to technology getting out to the public. It was something only true techies knew about, people in general didn’t know about cryptography or anything else like that,” Erlich says.

“Moving away from the core, a lot has happened in terms of technological application. We see many new technical solutions around us that are part of our daily life. All kinds of smart gadgets, from smartphones to household appliances. That has evolved indeed, and we are benefitting from such development not just from the development side, but also simply as common people.”

Making it popular through application, beyond the buzz

The question is – has there been an acceleration in development or adoption in the past few years? “If I think back to the past five years, everyone was talking about how to build an economic system using blockchain. Then, scrolling back even more, there were heavy discussions on how to use the cloud. This phenomenon is both amusing and impactful at the same time – those were buzzwords, but they stuck around to this day,” Vainsalu begins with.

And perhaps, there needs to be – like it or not – a moment of salesmanship in tech talk. “Buzzwords are, indeed, rather related to sales or marketing arguments. Take the cloud: the technology has been there for quite a long time, even before the Internet was invented. Technically it’s not something too complicated. But explaining its use and applications to regular consumers, users, or even decision makers, is not that straightforward. The same happened to the blockchain. At the end of the day, it’s easier to find some common, recognizable name for such solutions,” Erlich continues. That could be, in many instances, what turns them from niche products, into more widely known labels.

“I would agree that there has been rather little technical innovation, in terms of core technology, in the past 20 years. But wording and marketing have been functional to highlight the values of technology to a wider audience, not solely composed of tech-savvy people. And make more of the general public understand its benefits, and be at the receiving end of useful applications making life more convenient,” Vainsalu highlights.

Government’s path from digitization to a digital society

It is governments and public administrations, though, that must reap the benefits of technological change and its applications. “As they do consume an enormous amount of budget in running the state, in every country, public administration comes to mind as the first place where taxpayers money can be saved, and injected instead into other sectors of the national economy,” Erlich says.

But if every country today officially says they’re working towards digitalization, as Vainsalu points out, what do they exactly mean with it? “Even countries we wouldn’t canonically consider highly digitalized are using the gadgets that emerged most recently. The only difference is that some governments have been digitalizing just some parts of society, or just some of their functions. To achieve full digitalization, instead, we need to have a process of transformation,” Erlich explains.

“A process that does not involve only technology. Technology is something you buy when you need it. Digitalization means, instead, a change of mindset in society, an upgrade in rules and regulations. Essentially, accepting that all we see in a digital format has the same value of what we see on paper.”

“Just buying technology does not answer the question posed by digitalization. When efficiency is the goal, governments need to look into processes and procedures as well. To identify what can be made simpler, and the unnecessary steps or oversight that can be automated and made more secure,” Erlich highlights. To get there, governments are called to grow with technology, and society to grow together with them. As “technological innovation, even if minimal, is still very important to bring about wider acceptance and adoption,” Vainsalu concludes.

e-Governance Academy is celebrating its 20th year anniversary in 2023. And what a journey it has been – two decades of advising governments worldwide on how to reap the benefits of digital development! With the Digital Government Podcast, we are happy to share with you our expertise, gathered during the journey and ventures with 280+ organisations with in more than 132 countries.